Monday, 12 September 2016

Getting technical

A few months ago on Twitter, I asked for recommendations for interesting EAP related articles as I had just gotten access to a university library and had plans to do a ton of reading. Good intentions being what they are, I read very few. Fortunately, Richard Ingold, sensing my idleness, sent me a very enthusiastic recommendation recently. Not only was it an interesting article, in tracking it down I also discovered that I have access to a physical library that I had been completely unaware of. Buoyed by all this serendipity, I thought it might be interesting to do a write up of the article.

Martin, J.R., 1993. Technicality and abstraction: Language for the creation of specialized texts. In A. Burns and C. Coffin, eds. 2001. Analysing English in a global context: a reader. London: Routledge. Ch.13.

Who is it by?
The author is J.R. Martin - I'd not heard of him before but that says more about my ignorance than his renown. He is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, is known for his work on systemic functional linguistics (SFL) and has a Wikipedia page. I've only done a tiny bit of reading on SFL - the idea (I think) is to look at language from a social perspective; that language is shaped by (and shapes) how we see and experience the world and that by analysing the language a person uses, you can better understand their beliefs or world views. (Richard has a fascinating article here where he uses SFL to analyse a sermon by a religious group called Hillsong).

What is the main argument?
For the guts of the article, Martin analyses examples of technical writing (for example, in science but also in the humanities). He starts by talking about how we classify things - for example, children would group a cow, a horse and a dog as animals; if they come across a new creature (he gives the example of a platypus) they might then question whether they can classify that as an animal. If their parent says yes, platypus is now an animal for the child. Similarly, in science, things are classified according to a system but the logic for that system might not be obvious or intuitive to a non-expert.

He then talks about definitions of technical terms. A technical term might be defined using simple language (e.g. A chromecast is a thing you plug into your telly so you can project your phone screen on to the big screen and watch netflix). Alternatively, a technical term might be explained by placing it in a category (e.g. a chromecast is a type of media streaming device). The former takes a bit more time to write but most people should get the idea from it. The latter is obviously easier for me to write and should be easier to understand if the person knows what a media streaming device is - but it would be incomprehensible if they didn't.

In my first chromecast example above there were lots of verbs (plug, project, watch). In my second chromecast example, the only verb was "is". This leads on to the idea that technical writing features lots of nominalisation or noun phrases as opposed to verbs. For instance, science studies processes but looks at these processes as things. Respiration refers to a process but "respiration" is a noun - the process (respiring) is nominalised (respiration) to make it easier to classify and talk about. So in scientific writing, you end up with lots and lots of nouns/noun phrases. Similarly, in the humanities, you have a lot of nominalisation - when we talk about abstract ideas/concepts (e.g. beauty, environmental damage, a vast increase in taxation). As a result, technical writing can often be accused of being jargon heavy. I get the sense that he thinks this either unfair or unhelpful although he does discuss the way some writing leans heavily on nominalisation as a sign of status.

What I took from it
To be honest, the first time I read through it, I wasn't quite sure if it had relevance to my teaching. I read it again and one particular line jumped out at me - "The main point as far as education is concerned is that students need to learn to read abstract discourse if they are to be functionally literate in our culture and write abstract discourse if they are to interpret their world in a critical way". From what I understand, all this technical laguage in academic writing can be extremely challenging for students - they may understand the concept but not the terms or they may recognise the terms but not understand what they mean or how they relate to other terms. So clearly, there is a lot of work to be done there.

Also, because this aspect of academic writing (the nominalisation heaviness) is never really unpacked for them (by unpack, I mean to look at the key nouns/abstract ideas in a sentence and think about what they mean, how they relate to other concepts in the text), Martin also points out how students often end up writing as they speak. This is something I've noticed a lot with students - their writing tends to be full of personal pronouns and lots of "if" sentences; the focus of the sentence tends to be either a person (often "I") or a thing (often the government) that acts like a person.

My advice to students on this tends to be very lame - "don't use I, it's not academic". I think I've been guilty of teaching academic writing in a do/don't approach - "this is a feature of academic writing - this is not; use obtain, not get; contractions are bad, etc.". In other words, a very micro level type approach. On p.221, Martin looks at a students' writing which is very 'spoken' in style and then suggests how it can be improved - his point being that if the student frames their writing within a thesis, argument, summation model, they will need abstract language. I think I might try more of this kind of thing - take a short essay written in a spoken style and then create a more "academic" article; unpacking it for the students to highlight the abstract language, the frequent focus on ideas/nouns and their relationship to other ideas/nouns in the text.

I might also try to get more down and dirty with technical language - I often see skimming and scanning as learning goals in EAP books; perhaps unpacking as a reading skill might be of equal value?

Disclaimer: I may have completely misunderstood this article so please check comments below in the hope that some kind soul offers corrections if needed.